Modern Architecture


The dawn of modernity was a predo­mi­nantly European phenomenon. 

Since the middle of the 19th century indus­tria­liz­ation and urbaniz­ation changed all areas of life. 

Electrification and the new means of mass trans­por­tation accele­rated this process since the turn of the century and influ­enced aesthetic experiences. 

The rejection of histo­ricism and the search for new forms of expression and living became the starting point for a multitude of social and artistic tendencies. 

They ranged from the Arts and Crafts movement, Art Nouveau, the garden city movement, the estab­lishment of the German Werkbund to the insti­tu­tio­na­liz­ation of so-called Neues Bauen with the founding of the Bauhaus in Weimar and later in Dessau. 

Immediately before and after the World War I, Germany was a testing ground for archi­tec­tural modernism, driven by the concern that the change in living condi­tions had to find its equivalent in the design of modern buildings. 

Housing freed from tradi­tional models, social housing and new forms of non-profit housing estates and church buildings as well as technical and commercial buildings were central themes in the rapidly growing cities.

Paradigm shift

In the late 19th century the transition to modern archi­tecture took place for various reasons. 

One of the most important issues of archi­tecture in the 19th and early 20th centuries was the search for an appro­priate and generally valid archi­tec­tural style. 

It was not until the end of the 19th century that a change in living condi­tions in the cities slowly began to take hold. 

Affordable modern dwellings with light and air were to replace the old tenement blocks with their numerous dark backyards. 

Residential Complex, 1927. Architect: Mies van der Rohe

Stuttgart: Residential Complex, 1927. Architect: Mies van der Rohe

The innovative use of materials such as glass, iron, zinc, steel and concrete created completely new possi­bi­lities for architects. 

Particularly on the occasion of the World Expositions, the European Countries were urged to showcase their achievements. 

Huge exhibition halls made of steel and glass were therefore erected in the host cities for the first time for this purpose. 

Experience with these materials had been gained since indus­tria­liz­ation in the middle of the 19th century, when factory halls, railway stations and green­houses became new construction tasks and the changed technical possi­bi­lities allowed wide-span construc­tions with curtain walls. 

At the end of the 19th century, one sensed a disil­lu­si­onment with the archi­tecture of histo­ricism, whose academic schol­arship had done nothing to solve the pressing social problems. 

The rejection of tradi­tional forms of archi­tecture thus became the starting point in the search for a new style that would better respond to the changed lifestyle and needs of a new era.

The construction of buildings made of iron, glass and concrete already indicated a consistent reduction of design to its functional components. 

New designs

Tagblatt Turm, 1924-1928. Architekt: Ernst Otto Oßwald

Stuttgart: Tagblatt Tower, 1924–1928. Architect: Ernst Otto Oßwald

The impetus for the inner-city high-rise as a radically new form of construction came mainly from Chicago after the great fire of 1871. 

European archi­tects subse­quently took up the challenge of the new building type. 

From England, on the other hand, came the reform approach of William Morris, who regarded craft­s­manship and artistic work as the basis of a fulfilled life. 

Art Nouveau archi­tecture, reform archi­tecture and the garden city movement – based on Hermann Muthesius – drew signi­ficant impulses from this.

Art Nouveau

Maison Saint-Cyr, 1901-1903. Architect: Gustave Strauven

Maison Saint-Cyr, 1901–1903. Architect: Gustave Strauven

Already at the time of its emergence, Art Nouveau was understood as modernist archi­tecture in contrast to the then prevailing historicism. 

The attempt to bring art and everyday life into harmony and its compre­hensive will to reform distin­guish Art Nouveau from a purely external renewal of architecture. 

With its various manifes­ta­tions, Art Nouveau ranges from a floral variant, which trans­ferred the moving line into stone, metal and wood and which had its main focus between 1898 and 1904 in France, Germany and Belgium, to Modernismo in Catalonia and the archi­tecture of Viennese Modernism.

In theory, Art Nouveau appears as an attempt to integrate art into the life of society as a whole, but in practice it soon took on predo­mi­nantly bourgeois characteristics. 

The building tasks of the constantly growing cities made Art Nouveau the common facade design, where the creative power of archi­tects and craftsmen could be expressed.

Reform Architecture

Anatomische Anstalt der Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, 1905-1907. Architekt: Max Littmann

Munich: Institute of Anatomy Ludwig-Maximilians-University, 1905–1907. Architect: Max Littmann

Reform archi­tecture was usually linked to social reform efforts. Cooperatives, factories, building and savings associa­tions developed extensive housing estates. 

The principles of the garden city movement were applied and constantly refined. 

Facade decoration disap­peared more and more. Practicality without false pathos, simplicity and adequacy of means were the corner­stones of this movement. 

In Munich, the Borstei is worth mentioning in this context, in Dresden the Gartenstadt Hellerau, in Essen the Margarethenhöhe housing estate.

After the First World War in the wake of an incre­asing housing shortage, urban planners and archi­tects took up the ideas of  reform archi­tecture and developed them further in the formal language of the 1920s.

Urban planning and housing estate construction

Stockwerksiedlung, 1927-1930. Architekten: Carl Jaeger, Hanna Löv u.a

Munich: Stockwerk Estate, 1927–1930. Architecten: Carl Jaeger, Hanna Löv u.a

The First World War and its aftermath required a rethink in urban planning and architecture. 

The economic restric­tions in housing construction and the change of the property developer from a private builder to a non-profit construction company or munici­pality had a major impact on design. 

Large housing estates had to be built in the shortest possible time to counteract the housing shortage. 

Long terraced houses and large residential courtyards replaced the apartement buildings of the pre-war period. 

The decorative façade as a means of design was replaced by a unified, mostly under­stated exterior design, which often charac­te­rized entire city quarters. 

Artistic expression was limited to individual details, to fountains and sculp­tures in the courtyards, to entrance areas, stair railings, front doors and door handles, grilles and water collectors, to the color­fulness of the facades and their rhythmic struc­turing through window and door openings.


Einstein Tower, 1919-1924. Architect: Erich Mendelsohn

Potsdam: Einstein Tower, 1919–1924. Architect: Erich Mendelsohn

In the first three decades of the 20th century, different archi­tec­tural styles quickly followed one another, inter­locked, influ­enced one another and remained topical for longer or shorter periods, depending on region and circumstances. 

Expressionism survived the First World War. Before the war it existed primarily in the visions of the so-called Glaeserne Kette, in the designs and sketches of Bruno Taut, Wenzel Hablik and Hans Poelzig.

After the First World War, the visions became a built reality: the Chilehaus in Hamburg, the church buildings by Dominikus Böhm, Ernst and Günther Paul and Hans Voigt, the Grassimuseum in Leipzig, as well as a whole series of commercial buildings and housing estates. 

Since Art Nouveau, ornament has not been accorded such impor­tance. Characteristic for the archi­tecture of Expressionism is a tendency towards the Gesamtkunstwerk.

Brick and partly concrete were popular building materials. In contrast to the New Objectivity or the Neues Bauen, Expressionist archi­tecture is charac­te­rized by round and curved on the one hand, and jagged, almost bizarre-looking forms on the other hand, which in their elevation were deliber­ately intended to evoke associa­tions with the Gothic.

The Bauhaus, especially in its Weimar phase, absorbed many elements of Expressionism: Pragmatism, expressive simpli­fi­cation and a sense of ethical obligation to society were features that were in keeping with the school´s metho­do­lo­gical programme. 

In the Netherlands, the Expressionism of the Amsterdam School influ­enced archi­tecture until well into the twenties.

Art Deco

Villa Empain, 1930-1935. Architect: Michel Polak

Brussels, Villa Empain, 1930–1935. Architect: Michel Polak

In a short time, Art Deco developed from a French to an inter­na­tional fashion in design, interior decoration and archi­tecture. Its name is derived from the Parisian exhibition Exposition inter­na­tionale des arts décoratifs et indus­triels modernes in 1925. 

Picking up on influ­ences from Cubism, Futurism and Expressionism, it is charac­te­rized in German archi­tecture by ornamental complexity, acute angles and figurative decoration, all in all by varied but mostly geometri­cally designed elements.

In high-rise archi­tecture in the USA, Art Deco continued to develop with polychromy and ornamen­tation and reached a new peak.

The 1922 Gewerbeschau in Munich was ground­breaking for the arts and crafts in Germany. 

Richard Riemerschmid was respon­sible for the artistic design. The planning, which was by all means combined with a taste-forming aspiration, lay with the Deutscher Werkbund.

In German archi­tecture in parti­cular, Art Deco – referred to by contem­poraries as Expressionist Rococo – cannot always be clearly distin­guished from Expressionism. 

This again shows that there was no generally valid aesthetic ideal at that time. Where Art Deco was allowed to be stricter and New Objectivity more elaborate, where the decorative style became expressive and Expressionism more objective, stylistic terms reached their limits.

Bauhaus and Neues Bauen (New Building)

Bauhaus Building, 1925-1926. Architect: Walter Gropius

Dessau: Bauhaus Building, 1925–1926. Architect: Walter Gropius

Walter Gropius founded the archi­tec­tural program of New Objectivity in 1911 with the construction of the Fagus Factory in Alfeld. 

Later it was called classical modernism or, since the exhibition of Henry-Russell Hitchcock and Phillip Johnson in 1932 at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, International Style. 

Modernism´s striving for abstraction ultimately led to a reduction to the geometric body. 

The ornament became incre­a­singly super­fluous, the building was reduced to its functional form. Industrially manufac­tured components became the norm. 

Large areas of glass, the flat roof, white walls with few coloured details, archi­tecture based on the model of an ocean liner or an engine, long bands of windows in contrast to white plaster surfaces charac­te­rized this new way of building. 

Sharply cut openings, generous glazing and ratio­na­lised floor plans dissolved into flowing spatial conti­nuums were further features. 

With the so-called Neues Bauen, the possi­bi­lities for realiz­ation also expanded; in addition to new residential models, roofs, windows, doors, furniture, fittings and kitchens were developed for indus­trial production. 

The solution of the housing question as one of the most important causes of social hardship was one of the most urgent problems to be solved after 1918 in the Weimar Republic.

It was not until 1924 that the economic situation in Germany conso­li­dated and a housing estate construction programme, unique in Europe, began, under which tens of thousands of apart­ments could be built.

Mehrfamilienhaus, Dammerstock Siedlung Karlsruhe, 1929, Architekt: Walter Gropius

Karlsruhe: Residential Complex, Dammerstock Estate, 1929, Architect: Walter Gropius

Neues Bauen may be a synonym for modernism, but it was far from being as widespread as it might appear, mainly due to the attention it attracted in literature and the media since the post-war years. 

The majority of archi­tecture in Germany since the interwar years followed a hybrid design approach that took local building tradi­tions into account while not losing sight of modernist guidelines. 

Numerous high-quality buildings and housing estates were created, for which compe­ti­tions were held in advance, in the course of which it was carefully consi­dered and set out in writing which form of design and construction seemed appro­priate in a parti­cular urban planning situation and regional environment. 

The new buildings often triggered a consi­derable contem­porary echo among the population and the press. 

High-rise debates were held, the pros and cons passio­nately discussed.

Almost every new building was given a nickname among the population, a sign of the strong identi­fi­cation with the building in public space.

Modernism and National Socialism

With the seizure of power by Adolf Hitler and the dicta­torship of National Socialism, a radical change of direction took place. 

The archi­tects of the 1920s often initially refused to acknow­ledge that the condi­tions for designing archi­tecture had changed so rapidly. 

In the early years there was still a certain amount of freedom, especially in the cultural sphere, but the hopes of many artists and archi­tects for recognition of modernism as a so-called German or Nordic accom­plishment were illusory. 

Modernism – whether in archi­tecture or in other fields – was only applied where it was useful to the regime, namely in indus­trial and armament construction, ratio­na­liz­ation or propaganda. 

The repre­sen­ta­tives of the Bauhaus were dismissed and subse­quently no longer received public contracts. 

Walter Gropius and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe were still permitted to design sections of the exhibition Deutsches Volk – Deutsche Arbeit in 1934. 

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was commis­sioned in 1935 to plan the German pavilion at the World Exhibition in Brussels. 

Many well-known archi­tects, graphic artists and designers of the former Weimar Republic came to terms with the National Socialist system, with indus­trial and engineering buildings in parti­cular remaining a domain of modernism in the service of rearmament and war. 

During the years of the National Socialist dicta­torship, the individual fates of archi­tects and artists ranged from complicity and colla­bo­ration to adapt­ation and arran­gement, from the division between public and private activity to exile. 

All archi­tects and artists of Jewish faith, non-conformist political views or undes­i­rable sexual orien­tation had to emigrate or were perse­cuted and murdered.